Title: Wily Tom Waits' Barnyard Breakthrough
Source: Now magazine, by Tim Perlich. Transcription as published on Now On Music
Date: April 22-28, 1999
Key Words: Fatherhood, Les Claypool/ Primus, Testamints


Wily Tom Waits' Barnyard Breakthrough


An ornery coot at the best of times, Tom Waits takes a special delight in confounding interviewers with outlandish allegorical fabrications peppered with seemingly unrelated factoids concerning tropical fish, insect behaviour and the number of teardrops it takes to fill a teaspoon.

From Waits's perspective, there's no reason to settle for the boring old truth when a preposterous tale, convincingly told, packs a far more potent entertainment wallop. And if you can see through the layer of bullshit, there's often a kernel of truth in each apocryphal invention.

A possible reason behind his baffling decision to release his fabulous new Mule Variations album on the corporate-punk outpost Epitaph, for example, might be found in a story Waits used to tell about growing up in Whittier, California.

He would supposedly go out into the desert with his buddies, where they'd bury themselves neck-deep in the sand and wait for the vultures to circle. When the buzzards moved in for an eyeball peck, they'd jump up, grab them by the necks and swing them around overhead.

In similar fashion, Waits maintained radio silence over the last few years, waiting patiently for record-company reps to swoop in. When Epitaph got close enough, he seized the opportunity by the neck.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," chokes Waits over the phone from what he claims is "Miner's Prayer, Nevada, just across the bridge from Rio de Janeiro," yet it's likely much closer to his Petaluma County homestead in northern California. "I've passed that game on to my kids now, and we play it together around the holidays.

"On Christmas Eve, instead of having a tree and doing the stuff everybody else does, we bury ourselves in sand and wring the necks of vultures. It's become a family tradition.

"And, oh, those kids of mine --they're all bigger than me now. They're taller than me, smarter than me, too. They're pushing me around, talking back and telling me what to do. They know a lot of the groups on Epitaph, like Rancid, mmm... Pennywise. I think it's a good place for me. I don't know why, it just feels right.

"A lot of artists think, 'Gee, they signed that new group Mean Old Man Next Door, who have that great Tijuana Moon record out now. If they understand them, maybe they'll like my music, too.' I guess that works for some people, but for me, the folks at Epitaph just seemed like good people. They put together this whole big proposal, so we're giving it a shot with Mule Variations."

However anomalous the Mule Variations album may be in the Epitaph catalogue, it's nevertheless a stunning work, on which Waits neatly sums up his career to date.

He's taken what he's learned from clanking on rusty gas tanks with busted crankshafts and tempered it with some of that barfly romance from his lounge-crooner past, to come up with a bluesy bounce that recalls the rollicksome side of his Heartattack And Vine phase.

More than any of Waits's Island-era studio experiments, Mule Variations has the kick of a plugged-in working combo.

"Music, by nature, is a collaborative endeavour -- it's social. My wife (Kathleen Brennan) and I wrote the songs together, arranged them and produced them in the studio with great musicians like Charlie Musselwhite, Marc Ribot, John Hammond, Larry Taylor, Greg Cohen, Andrew Borger, Smokey Hormel, the guys from Primus, and Christopher Marvin -- Lee Marvin's real son -- plays drums on Cold Water." The involvement of Beck's blues-schooled guitar/dobro hombre Smokey Hormel makes perfect sense, particularly on the gritty Get Behind The Mule, but Waits's connection with Les Claypool's merry band of spazz-rock pranksters, Primus, isn't quite as transparent.

Fish tales

Evidently, before Claypool participated in the Bone Machine sessions(1) and Waits provided the voice of Tommy the Cat for Primus' Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, Waits had a chance encounter with the members of Primus on a fishing trip.

"I was over at Bodega Bay," recalls Waits, "and I wasn't catching a thing. I flagged these guys down and asked them if they'd sell me one of their fish to put on my line and have my picture taken with it so I wouldn't feel humiliated when I got home. It turned out to be the guys from Primus, and they said 'Cool' and sold me a big barracuda.

"They live nearby, and since they're all part of the volunteer fire department, I see 'em now and then at pancake breakfasts or the Gun & Doll show they have at the community centre.

"Those Primus guys are very active in community events. When it's flood season, they're always out there sand-bagging, and they bring their instruments with them. As for myself, well, I do what I can for the community but I'd rather just write a cheque."

Apart from fishing at Bodega Bay and attending pancake breakfasts, Waits seems reluctant to discuss how he occupies his time when not recording at his converted-chicken-ranch home studio. The uncredited rooster solo that appears on the track Chocolate Jesusindicates that raising chickens might be involved.

"I've been breaking in other people's shoes," he insists with all the seriousness he can muster. "People send me their new shoes, boots or whatever and I walk around in 'em for three or four weeks -- it's a holistic thing. Then I send them back their shoes for $29.95 a pair.

"Right now we've got a holiday special of $24.95, which is a pretty good deal because that includes a beautiful leatherette carrying case... personalized.

Refreshing spirit

"My father-in-law has been trying to get me involved in this other business. He's got these little lozenges that come in different flavours and they have a cross on one side and a Bible passage on the other. He calls them 'testamints.'(2) The idea is that if you can't make the church service, you meditate on the testamint passage, then pop it in your mouth. We took the idea one step further with Chocolate Jesus."

As Beefheart-wacky as Chocolate Jesus gets, it doesn't diminish the album's surprisingly strong spiritual component, which shows up in the deep soul ballad House Where Nobody Lives, just as it does in the moving hymn that closes the album, Come On Up To The House.

From the hysterically hunching roast-pork recipe Filipino Box Spring Hog to the unabashedly sentimental Picture In A FrameMule Variations might appear to be a haphazard jumble of conflicting notions, but everything eventually falls into place. It's almost like Waits was working to some grand design.

"I usually try to put some weather on there, some names of places and people, and maybe a recipe or two, so my record becomes like a survival kit that people can take on camping trips.

"This is the kind of record you want to turn up full blast, put on those leotards, hip boots and your bathing cap and do the frog right there in the middle of the driveway. I'd like to see more of that going on."

NOW APRIL 22-28, 1999


(1) Bone Machine sessions: Claypool/ Waits collaborations: - The Primus album: "Sailing The Seas Of Cheese" (Interscope, 1991). With Waits guesting on: "Tommy The Cat". Singer, bass; - The album 'Bone Machine'. Album released: August, 1992. Electric bass ("Earth Died Screaming"); - The album 'Mule Variations'. Album released: April, 1999. Bass ("Big In Japan"); - The album 'Real Gone". Album released: October 3, 2004. Bass (Hoist That Rag, Shake It, Baby Gonna Leave Me). Further reading: Who's Who?

(2) Testamints: further reading: Testamints (official site). Read lyrics: "Chocolate Jesus"

 "Testamints share a message and they freshen breath"